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Fresh air in the Windy City

New age dawns for Blackhawks, and more NHL notes

Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2007 2:02PM; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2007 2:42PM
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With GM Dale Tallon (left) assembling a cast of fine young talent, new owner Rocky Wirtz (right) is trying to woo long-oppressed fans.
With GM Dale Tallon (left) assembling a cast of fine young talent, new owner Rocky Wirtz (right) is trying to woo long-oppressed fans.
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Tuesday night's 7-4 beating at the hands of Columbus notwithstanding, hope is clearly in the air in Chicago. And, more surprisingly, on the air.

Mere weeks after taking over stewardship of the hapless franchise, new Blackhawks president Rocky Wirtz has taken the first step to win the hearts and minds of the city's downtrodden hockey fans by breaking with his late father's long-standing decision not to broadcast home games. It was confirmed this week that Wirtz is in negotiations with Comcast SportsNet to get the team on TV. And not some time in the future. This season.

Word is that just six games will be on the proposed schedule, a pittance compared to the wall-to-wall coverage offered in other Original Six towns. But even that tiny taste of action from the plenty-of-good-seats-still-available United Center is a shocking development. More important, it's a sign that, for the first time in ages, the interest of the fans is actually a consideration in the minds of Hawks management.

That certainly wasn't the case in years past. Wirtz's late father William was justifiably regarded as one of the worst owners in sports, a man who had little interest in raising the profile of the game or his team. It came as no surprise when the fans severed emotional ties with the old regime by booing boisterously during Wirtz's pre-game memorial service on Oct. 9.

Was it classless?

Hardly. After all, it wasn't his funeral, and ticket buyers weren't his friends. And they weren't booing Wirtz the family man or Wirtz the philanthropist. They were exorcising the demon that had not only allowed their beloved team to fall into disrepair, but actually seemed to revel in their misery.

In the years leading up to his death, Wirtz had become a villain of cartoonish proportions to Chicago's fans, a Grinch-like super baddie whose primary objectives appeared to be (1) counting his money and (2) the eradication of whatever passion existed for the sport within the city's limits. In the end, it appears the only foe powerful enough to put a stop to his fiendish plans was the pale rider himself.

But now that Wirtz the younger is manning the helm, all things seem possible. On the ice, the fortunes of the Hawks are rapidly improving. Patrick Kane, the first overall pick last summer, has shaken off early doubts brought on by his diminutive stature and is off to a rousing start. He collected four more points in Tuesday night's loss to Columbus, giving him 13 in just nine games. That total not only leads all rookies, but all Hawks as well.

His running mate, 19-year-old Jonathan Toews, is living up to his own immense billing, and already has a goal-of-the-year tally to his credit. Tuomo Ruutu is healthy -- knock on wood. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are maturing quickly into dependable top-four defenders.

The team still has issues: the penalty kill is bleeding goals and the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime won't win any beauty contests. But coach Denis Savard has his charges playing an inspired style that's conducive to winning and to entertaining the faithful as well as developing the prospects that eventually could restore the luster to this faded franchise.

But more encouraging than the kids or the 5-4 start is the promise of a better tomorrow under new management. What Rocky already seems to grasp is that no one needs to support a pro sports club. And among those inclined to do so, it takes more than simply slapping the hometown's name on the sweater to attract loyalty.

After handing Bob Pulford a red Swingline and assigning him basement office space, Rocky's proven himself willing to part company with the old ways of doing business. The broadcast deal, when finalized, will cement that reputation.

It remains to be seen what impact those broadcasts will have on backsliding Hawks fan. But at the least, it's a sign that someone actually cares to listen to them. And for the long-ignored hockey faithful of Chicago, that's reason enough to hope.

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